Led by 18 points from Noah Williams, the Washington State Cougars picked up their fifth consecutive win to open up the 2020-21 season with a 69-60 defeat of the Portland State Vikings on Sunday.
Williams, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the Cougs’ go-to players, also contributed 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal in 32 minutes.
In this one, the Cougars finally got off to a strong start for the first time all season behind some deadly early shooting from outside: WSU made 8 of its first 13 shots — including four 3-pointers (two from Andrej Jakimovski, and one each from Bonton and Williams) — to take an 11-point lead after the first 10 minutes, 20-9.
The shooting (predictably) came back down to earth for the rest of the first half, but the Cougs took a lead into the break for the first time all season, 30-22
But, as has been the team’s M.O. all season, they came out slow after halftime — the Vikings outscored the Cougs 14-7 over the first seven-plus minutes of the second half to close the gap to within 1.
The lead was three with 11:28 to go when WSU’s talisman, Isaac Bonton, picked up his fourth personal foul and had to head to the bench. With the Cougs holding a three-point lead the question immediately became: Where would the offense come from?
Williams was up to the task, as was freshman guard TJ Bamba. With Bonton out of the game, WSU took the lead up to 10 over the next seven minutes with Williams scoring 8 (behind two driving layups and a pair of midrange jumpers) and Bamba scoring 7 (a 3, a 2, and a pair of free throws).
The lead was eight when Bonton checked back in with 4:21 to go, and Portland State would get no closer than seven the rest of the way as the Cougs more or less cruised to victory from there, hitting enough free throws down the stretch to close it out.
Bonton was the second-leading scorer with 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists, while Bamba was right behind him with 15 points on 3-of-4 shooting and a whopping 8-of-11 from the free throw line. Jakimovski contributed 12 points and 7 rebounds.
The Cougs now take finals week off before returning to the court on Friday, when they'll host the Montana State Bobcats.
Thumbs up: Playing without Bonton
Here’s the primary lineup Kyle Smith used for the seven minutes Bonton sat on the bench with four fouls:
- Ryan Rapp (sophomore)
- Noah Williams (sophomore)
- TJ Bamba (freshman)
- Andrej Jakimovski (freshman)
- Efe Abogidi (freshman)
That’s a tough situation to be thrust into, particularly given how lost WSU has looked at times this year without Bonton on the floor. Plus, they were facing a veteran squad of mostly high major transfers that plays a swarming, ball-pressure style.
They didn’t just survive — they absolutely thrived, exhibiting uncommon fearlessness and extending the lead.
It’s clear Williams has diversified his game to the point that he can be the focal point of the offense, so his contribution wasn’t a huge surprise. Two guys who did surprise me in that run, however, were Bamba and Rapp.
You’d never know Bamba was a freshman unless someone told you. He’s physically mature, yes, but there’s also a calm about his game. He rarely forces anything and generally just makes good decisions, knowing when to attack the rim with strength — a skill he possesses that has been missing from this program for a while — and when to move the ball. And his movement away from the ball is excellent, too.
Rapp became the primary ball handler while Bonton sat, and he proved himself to be steady in that role. He has yet to score this year (which is utterly bizarre), but today he had 5 assists, 3 rebounds and — perhaps most importantly — just 2 turnovers against Portland State’s pressure defense. He’s also a sound defender who alters perimeter shots with his length.
The Cougs have been +22 in the last two games when Rapp is on the floor, and while the limitations of +/- are duly noted, it’s getting harder to dismiss Rapp as merely the beneficiary of good play from his teammates. At some point, he’s going to need to score at least a little. But it’s working out for now!
Thumbs up: Shooting defense
Remember when Ernie Kent boasted about all of his “long and athletic” players he was getting? That’s actually WSU right now under Smith. The guards and wings run 6-3 to 6-8, contesting perimeter shots with abandon, while the centers are either an incredibly athletic 6-10 or a monstrous 7-1, making opponents think twice about approaching the rim.
The Cougs make the vast majority of shots difficult, and they’re now 10th nationally in effective field goal percentage against. The competition hasn’t been tremendous, but still — that’s incredible. Teams have made less than 40% of their 2s after making more than 51% a year ago and 55% in Kent’s final season, due in no small part to ranking 79th in block rate, nearly twice the rate of last season.
This, by the way, is with WSU playing just one big. Imagine if the Cougs ever decide to play two bigs. I have no idea how it would work offensively, but I’m not sure the other team would ever score, either.
Thumbs down: Defensive rebounding
An obviously natural byproduct of the opponent missing a truckload of shots is that there are a truckload of opportunities for offensive rebounds. And Portland State was relentless in pursuing them, picking up 35% of their misses.
Strong defensive rebounding is one of the core principles of Smith’s philosophy, and it’s been iffy at times this year — Oregon State also got to 35%. WSU only allowed 35% three times all of last season.
This isn’t wholly a surprise, given that CJ Elleby was far and away the team’s best defensive rebounder last year, and he’s now with the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s probably just something to keep an eye on.
Thumbs up: 2-point shooting
We all know what a struggle the offense has been for most of this year, and so much of that has had to do with WSU’s maddening inability to make shots inside the arc — just 39% in the first four games. That changed today, as the Cougars made 17-of-30 (57%) overall — including 10-of-14 in the second half — to power an offensive performance that came so very close to finally eclipsing 1.0 points per possession.
Anecdotally, it seemed as if the looks at the rim were of a higher quality in this game. And it certainly helped that they (finally) cashed in on most of their open looks, rather than piling up point blank misses. It was a wonderful development that gives hope for what’s to come.
Thumbs down: FT shooting
Today’s 14-of-24 from the line dropped the Cougs all the way to 67% on the season, 201st nationally. It’s a pretty crazy development that’s due in no small part to Bonton dropping from 83% last season to 68% this season.
Maybe it will sort itself out. I tend to think that it will, because I don’t think Bonton is a 68% shooter from the line, nor do I think Bamba is a 62% shooter. Abogidi is at 57%, and I’m not sure what to expect there, but I think others improve. At least, I sure hope they do, because this team is primed to go to the line a whole bunch, and it’s going to be frustrating if they keep bricking those attempts.
Thumbs down: DJ Rodman’s ankle
Rodman’s ankle injury looked pretty gross in real time, and the presence of crutches when he returned to the bench doesn’t inspire confidence that he’ll be returning any time soon. If he’s out for a while, it really puts WSU in a bit of a bind, given that Aljaz Kunc and Tony Miller already are out at the 4.
Today, it was Jakimovski who filled in, playing 34 minutes. He is the highest rated recruit in last year’s class, and he does a lot of things well, but turnovers are currently a huge problem — he’s got 10 in the last two games and 14 overall. Playing him for 30+ minutes right now is a little dicey.
Does WSU eventually try playing two bigs? Some combination of Abogidi, Vova Markovetskyy and Dishon Jackson? It seems like Smith doesn’t prefer that, given that we haven’t seen it yet, but maybe he’s been holding onto it.